ATLANTA — The story of Elijah McClain’s death, which came after he was confronted and detained by police officers last year in the Denver suburb of Aurora, Colorado, did not go unnoticed by residents and the local news media in the weeks that followed.
Articles were published, and a few modest rallies were held. But it was nothing like the avalanche of fresh attention his killing received after the death last month of George Floyd sent thousands of protesters onto the nation’s streets, including in Colorado.
Now the story of McClain — a 23-year-old Black man who had committed no crime but was reported as “suspicious” by a 911 caller — has come to occupy a central place in the state’s emotional and fast-moving debate over police reform.
McClain’s mother was a high-profile presence in the Statehouse this spring as legislators debated a sweeping police reform law. The city of Aurora recently banned a type of controversial hold that had been used to detain McClain, and jettisoned an outside investigator — who had been hired to look into the killing — because he was a former police officer.
“If George Floyd didn’t die, I don’t think people would have paid attention to Elijah McClain,” said Tay Anderson, an activist and director of the Denver Public Schools board, in an interview. “I think people would have continued to ignore it.”
Instead, celebrities like singers Michelle Branch and Kacey Musgraves have been sharing McClain’s story on social media. And nearly 1.4 million people have signed a petition asking for the officers to be taken off duty and for a more rigorous investigation into McClain’s death.
McClain’s killing is among many deadly episodes involving police that are now receiving renewed scrutiny in the wake of outrage over the death of Floyd, who gasped for breath beneath the weight of a police officer’s knee, a fatal encounter that was captured on video.
The death of Floyd, who was Black, also unleashed a tsunami of demonstrations against police brutality and entrenched systemic racism, in turn elevating several cases that had been little known to the world but had burned like scars in the minds of neighbors.
Across the nation, from San Francisco to Houston to Duluth, Minnesota, the names of other men and women killed in confrontations with police are now on the lips of protesters or back on the pages of the local newspapers.
Some police killings that have followed Floyd’s have become flash points, such as the fatal shooting this month of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Within days, the police chief resigned; the police officer who pulled the trigger was fired and then charged with murder; a second officer was put on administrative duty and charged with assault; and the mayor announced a series of measures aimed at overhauling the Police Department.
In the New Orleans area, demonstrators have protested the fatal shooting of Modesto Reyes, a Black man who was shot by sheriff’s deputies in suburban Jefferson Parish two days after Floyd’s death on Memorial Day. (The Sheriff’s Department said Reyes pointed a gun at deputies as they were chasing him.)
The reverberations of the moment have also reached back decades: In Minnesota last week, Floyd was invoked as part of a successful effort to secure the posthumous pardon of Max Mason, a Black man wrongly convicted of raping a white woman 100 years ago.
“As I told the pardon board, the case of Max Mason is like the case of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castile,” said Jerry Blackwell, the Minneapolis lawyer who drafted the pardon application, mentioning the names of other Black men whose violent deaths have become high-profile human rights causes. “What they all have in common is a stereotypical and racist view of Black men in this country.”
It remains to be seen whether the renewed focus on many of these less prominent cases will have a tangible effect on their outcomes.
Sam Walker, an expert on police accountability at the University of Nebraska Omaha, said it was not clear whether old, closed cases would be reopened for investigation. But at the very least, he said, the new attention underscores the fact that problem cases are not anomalies.
“What I think is important is the extent to which the public discussion in the African American community on these old cases really represents the collective memory that exists, that doesn’t exist for whites,” Walker said. “It dredges up all these old issues and passions: This happens all the time; justice is never done.”District attorneys tend to deny that public opinion factors into their decisions to prosecute or not. But four days after Floyd’s death, the district attorney in Austin, Texas, took the unusual step of announcing that she would send a local case, the death of Michael Ramos, who was fatally shot by police in April, to a grand jury.
Grand jury proceedings are secret, and normally prosecutors do not signal when one is being convened. But the district attorney, Margaret Moore, said times were different now.
“I thought it was important for the people of Travis County to know we are indeed prosecuting the case. I was hopeful that it would help this community,” she said. “Because of the heightened attention to these cases, the anger, the fear, the frustration — all of which I came into office three years ago intending to address in this community — I’m modifying now to answer the new demands of the moment.”
Outrage over Floyd’s death ushered renewed attention to several recent deaths. Breonna Taylor was fatally shot in March when Louisville, Kentucky, police broke down the door of her apartment in a raid that found no drugs. Her case garnered scant attention until after Floyd’s death, when the number of Google searches for her name immediately began to rise.
In Oklahoma City, police released video of the death of Derrick Scott, who died a year ago in police custody after a confrontation with officers. In Kansas City, Missouri, this past week, prosecutors announced the indictment of a white police detective for the 2019 fatal shooting of a Black man, Cameron Lamb, whose name was among many that local demonstrators have been raising in street protests.
And in Houston, activists have been ratcheting up pressure on the Police Department to release body camera footage of the killing in April of a mentally ill 27-year-old Latino man, Nicolas Chavez. A harrowing video shot by a resident appears to show officers shooting Chavez multiple times while he is on his knees.
In some cases, news outlets have played a key role in bringing new details to light. In Austin, protesters have memorialized Javier Ambler, another Texas man, who died in March 2019. Williamson County sheriff’s deputies tried to stop Ambler for failing to dim his headlights, according to news reports, and then pursued him when he did not stop. They held him down and Tased him while he pleaded that he had congestive heart failure and could not breathe.
A film crew for “Live PD” was with the pursuing officer and filmed the encounter but later claimed to have destroyed the footage because, the host said, the show had a policy of not showing fatalities. The show has since been canceled.
The Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, the local ABC affiliate, had been requesting more information on the case for months but had only recently obtained police documents and video, The American-Statesman reported. The newspaper published an article on June 8 that said Ambler had cried, “Save me,” before deputies shocked him a final time.
“His death never made headlines,” the article stated.Street protests, too, have given the family members of those killed by police a receptive audience for their stories.
On June 6 in Washington, D.C., Kenithia Alston, the mother of a young man killed by police officers two years earlier, took a microphone and told a street packed with hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters about her fruitless struggle to convince the capital’s Metropolitan Police Department to release the full, unedited body camera video of the incident.
“So what I’m asking all of you here today is to tweet, Facebook, Instagram — tell this mayor to release the bodycam!” Alston said.
Four days later, the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic filed a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city government on Alston’s behalf. The suit claims that her 22-year-old son Marqueese Alston was confronted and chased by the police “without good cause or valid basis” and shot 12 to 18 times.
The Police Department did not respond to questions about the case, but in news reports at the time, they said that Alston had fired at officers with a handgun. His mother said she was able to view a short, edited version of the body camera footage but that it did not convince her that her son was armed. She also said it shows that her son was “running away from police when he was shot.”
Alston felt like some headway was being made. “It seems like people are starting to pay attention now,” she said.
But Alston’s lawyer, Zina Makar, a supervising attorney at Georgetown Law, said the case’s higher profile may only do so much for a matter that will ultimately be settled in court. “The interest is helpful,” Makar said, “but it doesn’t necessarily change the hurdles we have to jump.”
Despite the growing clamor to look at new cases, some families know that theirs will not be among them — and they instead take solace in the ways in which the protests are pushing for broad criminal justice reforms.
In 1986, Jimmie Lee Bruce Jr., 20, was home from college for winter break and went to the movies in Walkill, New York, with friends. He was killed by a white police officer, moonlighting as a security guard, who put him in a chokehold in the parking lot. His mother, Maude Bruce, 75, was the president of the Ellenville, New York, chapter of the NAACP.
She said that at the time there were rallies for her son outside the police station and in Albany, where the governor acceded to demands to appoint a special prosecutor. Two grand juries declined to indict the officer, she said.
Bruce said there was no chance the case would be reopened. But recently, she listened as the assemblyman who represented her at the time testified in Albany in favor of a bill to ban chokeholds, which passed and was signed into law.
“He said Jimmie Lee Bruce Jr. didn’t die in vain,” she said, “because 36 years later, we are here.”